- La donna serpente by Carlo Gozzi
In 2003 the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana in Venice acquired from the descendants of Carlo Gozzi (1720–1806) an extraordinary family archive containing 9,500 unpublished folios and manuscripts that shed new light on the composition process of what would have become the playwright’s famous [End Page 186] theatrical fairy tales. This acquisition not only led to the revival of research interest in Gozzi’s dramatic and theoretical writings but also launched an important editorial enterprise: the national edition of the playwright’s complete works by Marsilio publishing house. The first fairy play to appear in a new critical edition is one of Gozzi’s most engaging tales, La donna serpente (The Serpent Woman, 1762), edited by Giulietta Bazoli. This tale is already accessible in various Italian editions and to English-speaking readership in two accurate translations, one by John Louis DiGaetani (Translations of The Love of Three Oranges, Turandot, and The Snake Lady: with a Bio-Critical Introduction, 1988) and the other by Albert Bermel and Ted Emery (Five Tales for the Theatre, 1989). But Bazoli’s edition of La donna serpente succeeds admirably in providing an insightful discussion of the various steps in the tale’s composition, its mise-en-scène, as well as the experiences of the theatergoing public.
The introductory section includes a cursory outline of the genesis of Gozzi’s ten fairy plays. These plays had their origin in the mid-eighteenth-century debates on the reform of the Italian comic theater; the debates were one the most significant moments not only in theatrical life but in Venetian culture in general. To the realistic comedies of his rival dramatists, Carlo Goldoni and Pietro Chiari, who disseminated Enlightenment ideas, Gozzi responded with his new genre of the fairy drama, which promoted conservative values and contained an impressive number of transformation scenes, special effects, and commedia dell’arte stock characters. Further in the “Introduction,” Bazoli deals with the sources of The Serpent Woman, which recounts how the fairy Cherestanì resolved to marry her mortal lover Farruscad and shed her immortality and magical powers against the orders of the king of the fairies. Bazoli points out that Gozzi was inspired by the medieval legends of Morgan le Fay and Melusine, the cabinet des fées, the contes of Madame d’Aulnoy, and the sixteenth-century Spanish plays of magic, but it was Pétis de la Croix’s Oriental tales enclosed in his Mille et un jours that provided the basic structure for La donna serpente. Bazoli explains that the play’s other episodes—in particular, the hero’s trials (after violating the prohibition to inquire into his beloved’s true identity) and his kissing a terrible snake, the fairy in disguise—come from the tradition of the Italian chivalric novels of Boiardo, Ariosto, Tasso, and Pulci. The editor also underlines how the scenarios of the French Théâtre de la Foire and Lesage and d’Orneval’s adaptations of the Oriental tales for the opéra comique played the role of intermediary for Gozzi’s assimilation of the fairy-tale material and its translation into theatrical terms. The detailed analysis of the playwright’s sources of inspiration shows that the genesis of Gozzi’s new genre of fairy drama consisted in adapting and skillfully blending prior literary material, techniques of oral storytelling, and the tradition of the improvised comedy. [End Page 187]
As to the text of the fairy play itself, the editor has opted to reproduce it from the first Colombani edition (1772) of Gozzi’s works without including a critical apparatus with the variants from the recently acquired folios and manuscripts. As Bazoli clarifies, although these outlines present a high level of definition in the plot development (even in the parts designed to be improvised by the commedia dell’arte actors), their fragmentary character and the fact that they were destined for the stage and not for publication make them unsuitable for a coherent critical apparatus. This decision certainly makes for a more readable text, avoiding superfluous distractions...